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Assailants Attack City In Southern Brazil In Series Of Brazen Early Morning Heists

An armed gang launched an early morning attack on a southern Brazilian city Tuesday. The group methodically set up road blocks before going on a bank robbing and hostage-taking spree that ended in a gunfight with police.

The men attacked the Southern Brazilian city of Criciúma, located more than 800 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, and robbed several banks early Tuesday morning. Two people, one a police officer, were injured during the siege.

Several people, identified as municipal workers painting crosswalks, were taken hostage by the robbers and forced to act as human shields between the assailants and police. They were later released unharmed, according to Criciúma Mayor Clésio Salvaro, who spoke to Brazil's Globo News.

Salvaro posted on Twitter just after 2:30 a.m. local time saying, "Criciúma is the target of a major assault." He urged residents to stay home.

The skirmish in the normally tranquil city started around midnight local time. The assailants armed with guns and explosives cruised into Criciúma in several vehicles and preceded to blockade several streets. They also reportedly set fire to vehicles along the tunnel into the city from the main highway to prevent law enforcement from bringing in assistance from nearby towns. Over the course of two hours, they attacked four banks, blowing up the cash machines in each one, according to news reports.

Videos shared on social media showed deserted city streets with the sound of gunfire going off in the distance. In one video, what appears to be the six municipal workers can be seen sitting side by side on the city's crosswalk as gunfire goes off around them. Other videos showed what looked like cash littering the city streets with locals collecting the bills.

Globo News reports that at least four people were caught grabbing money from the streets were detained by police. Roughly $150,000 was reportedly recovered.

The robbers appear to have evaded capture. Salvaro told reporters it's the city's policy not to shoot back at attackers out of concern for the safety of the general public.

Criciúma, a city of around 133,000, is best known for its coal and ceramic and tile industries.

Bank robberies are not a rare occurrence in Brazil, a country that has among the highest crime rates in the world. A similar, coordinated attack to Tuesday's Criciúma incident took place in Sao Paulo last year. Two dozen robbers in that case attempted to blow up several ATMs. Eleven assailants were subsequently killed by police, according to Reuters.

NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.